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2012-2013 WFI Funded Research Projects

Grant Awarded ($5750): Social Change 2.0:
Social Media and the Immigration Reform Movement

Principal Investigator: Jillian M. Báez, Ph.D., Department of Media Culture
College of Staten Island-City University of New York

Immigration continues to generate heated debates in U.S. politics and mass media. On the one hand, there is an anti-immigration rhetoric present that is particularly aimed at the undocumented and largely represented in mainstream media and politics. On the other hand, there are also activists that challenge popular discourses that construct immigrants as both physical and symbolic threats to the nation. These counter-narratives are especially present in social media where immigrants and their supporters organize for comprehensive immigration reform. While the immigration reform movement utilizes traditional forms of protest such as rallies, boycotts, and marches, it is also increasingly present online in social media. Indeed, many of the traditional forms of protest are mobilized and sustained through interactive online media such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and Word Press. What is particularly significant is that it is the undocumented—usually depicted as invisible, passive, and technologically illiterate in the popular imaginary—that have utilized social media the most heavily and strategically for immigration reform.

This project will explore how undocumented immigrants make use of social media as a counter-narrative to anti-immigration rhetoric and to mobilize support for policy changes. To examine these dynamic processes my main research question is: how is the immigration reform movement mobilized and sustained through social media? In order to document how immigrants are using social media to push for immigration reform, I will perform a textual analysis of the blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, and Tweets on Twitter of several undocumented immigrant activists. In particular, the study will focus on two case studies that shed light on how social media might be harnessed for social change. One case study sheds light on how three undocumented mothers who were highly visible in the press and online advocate for immigration reform before and after taking sanctuary in churches in the U.S. The second case study examines how undocumented college students use social media to gain support for the federal DREAM Act. Both cases highlight the struggle of mixed status families, or those in which some family members have legal citizenship while others do not have documentation. Overall, these case studies broaden our notions of citizenship by expanding the notion of civic engagement to include more than just legal citizens. More specifically, these serve as excellent case studies for understanding how communication, particularly social media, can be used to mobilize for political causes and perform substantive citizenship.

Grant Awarded ($10,030): Creating School Environments that Communicate Support for Children from Lesbian/Gay-Parented Families

Principal Investigator: Diana Breshears, Ph.D., Interpersonal/Family Communication Post-doctoral Fellow Department of Educational Psychology University of Pretoria, South Africa

Through this research project, we will explore the discursive experiences of children with same-sex parents in the South African school context, as well as ways in which parents and educational institutions can communicatively create an environment that supports and fosters a positive sense of family identity for children in these stigmatized families. With the new Constitution in post-apartheid South Africa, and the more recent legalization of same-sex marriage, the prevalence and public recognition of lesbian/gay-parented families is on the rise in this developing nation. Despite the increase of this family form and the rights and protections guaranteed by South African law, cultural attitudes toward lesbian/gay families are not as progressive. As in many other countries, there is a culturally deeply rooted stigmatization attached to homosexuality and lesbian/gay-parented families in South Africa.

Parents in particular often need to talk with their children to prepare them for possible discrimination they will face from peers and other members of society. Researchers have found that many parents educate their children about homophobia, explaining to them that people may not accept their parents’ sexual identity and thus, might respond negatively to the children’s family identity. In a preliminary study, the primary investigator has explored children’s perceptions of and advice for parents coming out to their children and how parents can help their children negotiate their familial identities. Through the current project, we will extend these data by examining how parents can communicatively prepare their children to negotiate their familial identity at school, and how schools can create an environment that fosters this non- traditional family form.

We will examine the messages and coping strategies of these children, to develop practical solutions for parents as well as educators to help children who are faced with the daily cultural challenge. With conflicting cultural messages about homosexuality, and the prominence of teasing and bullying of children from lesbian/gay-parented families in schools, there is a clear need for research and change. The aim of our research project is to answer this need by examining the experiences of children of lesbian/gay parents in schools and the ways in which parents and schools can foster a positive sense of family identity in these children. To achieve this aim, the following goals have been created to guide our project:

  • Gaining an understanding of how children in lesbian/gay-parented families experience their familial identities in their daily lives
  • Understanding the challenges children in lesbian/gay-parented families face in the educational setting
  • Understanding the response strategies of children and parents in lesbian/gay- parented families allowing for the formation and maintenance of a positive familial identity
  • Exploring the needs of children from lesbian/gay-parented families in the school context, and what parents and educators can do to meet these needs
  • Developing resources (i.e., brochures, websites, workshops, and/or popular press articles) for parents and educational institutions wanting to create and maintain a positive sense of family identity for children from lesbian/gay-parented families.

Grant Awarded ($9090): The Dilemmas and Opportunities of U.S.-Chinese-Tibetan Communication in an Age of Globalization

Principal Investigator: Stephen John Hartnett, Department of Communication, University of Colorado Denver. Co-PIs: Lisa Keränen, Department of Communication, University of Colorado Denver; Patrick Shaou-Whea Dodge, Department of Communication, International College of Beijing.

Relations between the U.S. and China will play a significant role in shaping the twenty-first century. Standing as the world‘s two largest economies, marshaling the world‘s two largest armies, holding enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons and natural resources, and serving as the media generators for billions of image consumers around the world, the two nations are positioned to influence notions of democracy, nationalism, citizenship, human rights, and global markets for the foreseeable future. Addressing how the U.S. and China communicate about and with each other therefore stands among the key questions of our time. Along with debates about the status of Taiwan, exchange rates, and human rights more broadly, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the U.S.-China relationship is Tibet. The Chinese claim Tibet as a cherished part of the nation; Tibetans, international NGOs, and activists worldwide point to China‘s role in Tibet as nothing short of a genocidal occupation; and the U.S. government dances around these issues by meeting with Tibetan spokespeople but affirming China‘s sovereignty over Tibet, hence creating confusion in Tibet and consternation in Beiing.

While this situation is generally portrayed as a political impasse, we hope to seek ways of turning it, instead, into a communicative opportunity. In keeping with the core values of the Waterhouse Family Institute, and putting our communication ethics into global practice, we hope to explore the possibilities of using communication to help create a more just world. Our specific contribution to this broad goal is to attempt to create a series of prudent, visionary, and implementable communication strategies for facilitating better communication between China, the U.S., Tibet, and other stakeholders. Because the central players in this debate are dispersed around the globe—in Beijing and Lhasa, in Dharamsala and Hong Kong, in New York and London—our project also touches upon the key question of how―communication activism‖ functions in an age of globalization.

While the U.S. has produced a rich tradition of academic experts who study China‘s history, culture, and internal politics, and while the Chinese have begun turning their scholarly energies toward analyzing America, our collective scholarship suffers from a deficit of understanding of how cross-cultural communication drives our intertwined relationships. Indeed, as communication scholars, we believe that how U.S. and Chinese leaders, activists, artists, and scholars speak and write about our intercultural bonds and differences plays a central role in defining our political obligations and opportunities both at home and abroad. Thus, as humanistic communication scholars, we interpret the public to-and-fro of argumentation, the daily flow of words and images wherein we try to make sense of our world. We propose to supplement the burgeoning literature produced by communication scholars about U.S.-China dynamics by implementing a collaborative, communication-based analysis that will investigate how key players in the U.S., China, and Tibet envision and engage each other across official, grassroots, artistic, and mass mediated rhetorics.

Our specific goals include producing a series of articles and a book manuscript; a series of op-ed essays and public scholarship, with this work publicized via a public-access website; and organizing and hosting two public-access conferences (one in the U.S. and one in China) to address these questions. As a whole, these efforts should enable us to produce a roadmap for prudent and visionary communication strategies for helping to bring peace to Tibet and trust to future U.S.-Chinese dialogues.

Grant Awarded ($2540): Community as Metaphor:
Dialectical Tensions of a Racially Diverse Organization

Principal Investigator: J. Jacob Jenkins
Department of Communication,
 University of South Florida

In recent years, a sense of community has declined throughout the United States. Common Point Community Church – an intercultural congregation located in Tampa Bay’s urban corridor – has responded to this trend by prioritizing “community” as an organizational metaphor. Such a uniquely diverse congregation is especially significant, since Common Point’s surrounding community reflects the projected demographics of America by year 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008). Specifically, there are an estimated 160,000 persons living within six square-miles of Common Point (Percept, 2007). Thirty-nine percent of this population self- identifies as Hispanic, 30 percent identifies as Non-Hispanic White, 27 percent identifies as African-American, and four percent identifies as Asian-American/Multiracial.

During the course of my ongoing research within this organization, a majority of sermon topics addressed the need for community. Common Point’s congregational members were consistently encouraged to join small groups (referred to as Community Groups), and to attend organizational events aimed at relationship building (weekly men’s breakfasts, women’s luncheons, etc.) During this time, Common Point also built a community garden to benefit Tampa’s Homeless Café and maintained its partnership with a local elementary school by offering free tutorial services and hosting Fall Fest: a free community event with food, carnival games, children’s rides, etc. Additional community building efforts included Common Point Runs, a running club that offered clean drinking water to developing countries; Backpack Attack, an organizational initiative that provided free school supplies to local elementary students; We Cannot Wait, an initiative to feed, clothe, and shelter homeless citizens in the neighborhood; Movie Night Out, a monthly film screening in one of several public parks; Angel Food Ministries, a national program that offered discounted groceries to those in need; and Common Point Academy, a local program aimed at developing the artistic aptitude of elementary students.

An organizational emphasis on community, however, still does not answer the question of what community is or how it is co-constructed through the communication processes and practices of an intercultural organization. For that reason, this proposed study explores (a) specific ways in which “community” is understood by/among the organization’s racially diverse leaders and members, (b) potential limitations that result from these understandings, and (c) ways in which ensuing tensions are discursively managed in order to maintain the organizational metaphor of community.

Grant Awarded ($4493): The Discourse of Participatory Budgeting Organizing Efforts in Greensboro, North Carolina

Principal Investigator:  Spoma Jovanovic, Ph.D., Department of Communication Studies, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

This project aims to track the efforts of a grassroots organization to introduce a radically democratic process into municipal budget decision-making. This group’s goal is to build the capacities of ordinary citizens to deliberate and make collective decisions about public policy. Though PB has been used in 3,000 cities around the world, it is fairly new to the United States. Chicago has used the process twice, and New York once.

PB seeks to deepen citizenship and democratic action by securing a portion of the municipal budget for citizens to use in determining what typical or innovative projects are worthy of financial support from “the people.” To do this, citizens come up with proposals about how best to spend (in Greensboro’s case) 1% of the city’s budget, or $4 million. The effort will require a full year of citizen dialogue at specially designed neighborhood assemblies, project brainstorming sessions, the election of budget delegates, proposal development (with city officials), presentations about the projects, and finally, voting by the community residents. This research project will track the progress of the Participatory Budgeting (PB) process in Greensboro, North Carolina. The community-based research will follow and report on the organizing activities and community outreach efforts. The research team—broadly conceived as academic researchers and community members—will examine discourse from PB planning meetings, city public meetings, community meetings where PB is discussed, and interviews with four primary stakeholder groups: citizens exposed to PB ideas, active PB supporters, City of Greensboro staff, and elected officials.

As a community-based research project, we anticipate outcomes that will provide value to the community itself, and to the academic community of communication scholars. Specifically, the following will provide evidence of success of this research project:

  1. Demonstrable community stakeholder involvement in the design, implementation, analysis, and findings of the research project, privileging the voices of grassroots activists targeting the social change that PB represents. This will be documented and discussed by referencing the collaborative, cooperative features of the research program as well as the roles assumed by the different community participants.
  2. A report and power point presentation, useful to PB organizers in Greensboro and elsewhere, that details the lessons learned about the communicative processes that contribute to the necessary policy and procedural changes in local government to increase citizen involvement in budget planning and decision-making through PB.
  3. Completed research appropriate for academic conference presentations and publication in communication journals.
  4. Completed research appropriate for PB conferences, workshops, and other public outreach activities.

Grant Awarded ($3000): “Theater is...just...Theater is just It: Creation Fire”
An Ethnographic Exploration of Culture and Identity in Postcolonial Jamaican Performance

Principal Investigators: Maurice Hall, Ph.D., and Heidi M. Rose, Ph.D., Department of Communication, Villanova University

This proposal represents the second phase of an ongoing project that examines performance as a unique element of contemporary Jamaican culture, with the goal of expanding understanding of how this nation continues to carve out an independent identity after years of oppressive rule. Heidi Rose and Maurice Hall travelled to Jamaica in the summer of 2011 (supported by a 2011/2012 WFI Research Grant) to explore how theater organizations in Jamaica help to constitute the country’s national identity post- independence. In August 2011 we conducted 18 interviews that averaged 90 minutes and resulted in over 250 pages of transcripts. After initial analysis of the transcripts we created a 27-page draft of a script that highlights the oral histories, intersections of experience, relationships among Jamaican Independence and theatre development, and our positionality as researchers. This script was submitted for presentation at the 2012 NCA conference.

The data that was collected revealed a rich tapestry of voices that confirmed that the work of theater organizations in Jamaica and the artists associated with them has been at least as influential as politicians or events such as the annual arts presentations in shaping the current Jamaican national identity. Since 2012 marks the anniversary of Jamaica’s 50th year of Independence, this proposal outlines the rationale for returning to Jamaica, as was anticipated in our proposal last year, to present the data to the participants from last year in the form of a performance as a member check, and to use that occasion to collect further data in the form of follow up focus groups, more individual interviews, and observations of the 50the anniversary celebrations.

As a result of our research and data collection in Jamaica last year we confirmed that while a comprehensive factual history of Jamaican theater and performance has recently been published, no study has been conducted on Jamaican performance from a critical-cultural perspective. Jamaican theater and performance traditions have not been examined via communication and performance studies. This fact resulted in enormous enthusiasm for our project among the participants with whom we worked last year. Having anticipated last year that we would need a second phase of data collection, we want to elucidate three reasons for requesting funding for the second phase of the project this year.

First, August 2012 will mark the 50the anniversary of Jamaica’s Independence from Britain. As we gleaned during our trip last year, the government of Jamaica intends for this to be a signature event that will use the arts to examine, reflect on and interrogate the Jamaican national cultural identity in a very public manner. This is an opportunity, then, to return during this period to conduct observations of the processes of performance and the intersection with the national identity of the country during this momentous occasion. Second, we have developed an ethnographic performance script based on the data collected last year. It is our intent to convene the key participants for a performance of the script. This performance will serve as an important member check with the participants; it will also serve as an opportunity to collect more data in the form of focus group interviews from the assembled group. These participants represent the most influential voices in culture and the arts in contemporary Jamaica. It will be highly opportune to ask them to reflect on our work thus far in the context of the 50th anniversary celebrations. Third, this visit will provide an opportunity to interview some key individuals and observe some organizations that time did not allow last year. Adding to the trove of data that we have already collected is in part the reason we anticipated collecting data in two phases.

Our grant program was founded on the belief that Communication scholars' work can play a leading role in the creation of social change.

WFI Research Grants have resulted in significant journal articles and book publications--as well as impact on the lives of people living in communities across the US and the globe. For example, a WFI Research Grant awarded to Dr. Spoma Jovanovich played a key role in the city of Greensboro, NC, allocating $500,000 for participatory budgeting.